The Report: Learning To Serve

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Learning To Serve

Table of Contents



The Commission's Findings and Proposed Actions

Law School Pro Bono Programs: The Ethical Context

The Benefits of Pro Bono Programs for Law Students

The Benefits of Pro Bono Programs for the Law Schools Themselves

The Commission's Specific Recommendations

Pro Bono Projects for Law Students
What "Pro Bono" Projects Should Schools Foster?
Developing a School Plan
Pro Bono Work by Faculty Members
Steps for the AALS

Appendix: Examples of Law School Pro Bono Programs and Projects


by Deborah L. Rhode,
President, Association of American Law Schools

This Commission marks the first systematic effort by the Association of American Law Schools to address the role of pro bono and public service in legal education. Its comprehensive research and insightful analysis make clear the significant challenge facing law schools. The Commission's central factual findings indicate that most students do not participate in law- related pro bono projects. These findings well support the Commission's central conclusion that law schools "should do more."

A wide gap persists between law schools' formal policies and institutional practices. In 1996, the American Bar Association amended its accreditation standards to call on schools to "encourage students to participate in pro bono activities and to provide opportunities for them to do so." The revised ABA standards also encourage schools to address the obligations of faculty to the public, including participation in pro bono activities. Although a growing number of schools have made efforts to increase pro bono involvement, substantial progress remains to be made. Only about 10 percent of schools require any service by students and only a handful impose specific requirements on faculty. At some of these schools, the amounts demanded are quite minimal: less than twenty hours by the time of graduation. Over 90 percent of institutions offer voluntary programs, but their scope and quality varies considerably. Many schools have no law-related pro bono projects or have projects involving less than a few dozen participants.

This gap between aspirations and performance reflects and reinforces a similar gap among practicing lawyers. The American bar has long proclaimed its responsibility to contribute pro bono legal services, and its Model Rules of Professional Conduct provide that lawyers should aspire to render at least 50 hours of such service per year, primarily to persons of limited means. Few attorneys, however, come close to meeting that requirement. Most do not perform significant pro bono work and less than a fifth of those who do assist predominantly low income groups. The average for the profession as a whole is less than a half an hour per week.1

Efforts to build broader cultures of commitment must begin in law schools. To that end, the AALS Commission's primary recommendation is that every law school should seek to make available for every student at least one well-supervised pro bono opportunity and either require participation or find ways to attract the great majority of students to volunteer.

Law school pro bono opportunities serve two central objectives. One is to provide positive experiences to students that will encourage their future involvement as practitioners. Although we lack systematic studies about the effectiveness of law school pro bono programs in accomplishing that goal, the limited available research points in positive directions. In surveys at several schools with pro bono requirements, most students report that public service experience has increased their willingness to contribute pro bono services after graduation.

Second, law school pro bono programs have independent educational value, whatever their effects on lawyers' future involvement. Such programs provide many participants their only direct knowledge of how the system functions, or fails to function, for the have nots. To give broad segments of the bar some experience with what passes for justice among the poor may lay foundations for constructive social change.

Pro bono work can also offer faculty and students a range of practical benefits. Involvement in public service can provide opportunities for individuals to learn legal skills, explore alternative career options, develop professional contacts, and become involved in their communities.

The Report that follows offers valuable insights about institutionalizing law schools' commitment to pro bono and public service. Although its recommendations focus primarily on the design of pro bono programs, the Commission also recognizes that such programs are unlikely to shape behavior unless they are part of a broader culture of commitment. Issues concerning access to justice and the public responsibilities of the profession need to become institutional priorities. Law schools teach in subtexts as well as texts, and public service should be a pervasive value throughout the law school experience.

This is not a modest agenda. But it is a central challenge of legal education. The Report that follows is an important step towards its realization.

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